Year: 2024

Alex Asandei Awarded 6th Consecutive Single-PI NSF Grant

Alexandru Asandei
Dr. Alexandru Asandei

With the support of the Macromolecular, Supramolecular and Nanochemistry program in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Chemistry, Associate Professor of Chemistry and faculty member in the IMS Polymer Program Alexandru D. Asandei,  is developing new methods for the precise synthesis of novel fluorinated polymeric materials with complex architectures, as well as exploring the re/upcycling of commercial fluoropolymers.

Fluoropolymers are contrasted to conventional polymers with even simple homo/random fluoropolymers exhibiting outstanding chemical, thermal and flame resistance, biocompatibility, and unique electronic properties which render them important in high-end applications such as battery, aerospace, sensing, medical device, building, construction, and automotive industries. However, the chemical tools for the precise synthesis of analogous complex fluoropolymer materials (blocks, grafts etc.) are lacking. Thus, the project goals include the development of the required novel chemistry, to explore hitherto unknown and unavailable materials with potentially superior properties and applications leading to the associated societal benefits.

While technologically important, fluoropolymers suffer from a number of factors that have hampered new developments. These factors include a combination of very low monomer reactivity, very high propagating polymer chain end reactivity, complex and often hazardous laboratory setups, and the general lack of appropriate polymer chemistry tools (initiators, catalysts, coupling agents etc.). Accordingly, fluoroalkenes remain some of the most challenging monomers for both controlled radical and coordination polymerizations, where manipulation of molecular weight, polydispersity and architecture/sequence are of paramount importance for the emerging properties. In addition, current re/upcycling of industrial fluoropolymers remain minimal.

The proposed research aims at developing innovative and environmentally conscious chemistry (e.g. water, visible light catalysis etc.), to overcome the above deficiencies, and significantly enlarges the fluoro, organic and polymer synthesis toolbox, while providing access to novel fluoropolymer materials. This includes the elaboration of novel, functional, universal radical initiating systems that enable both controlled radical fluoro/regular alkene polymerizations and chain end derivatizations/couplings towards the synthesis of multiblock copolymers, in-depth mechanistic investigations on optimizing polymerization parameters and understanding the structure/property/function in the resulting fluoropolymers, as well as exploration of the coordination polymerization of fluoroalkenes, and the up/recycling of industrial fluoropolymers.

The project provides training and education to undergraduate and graduate students, including minority and female students, in synthetic organic, organometallic, and polymer chemistry. The project also has strong industrial impact, important outreach activities, and the results will be broadly disseminated in the scientific literature and national and international meetings.

UConn Signs Contract With Air Force Research Laboratory

from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering

A robotic welding arms in operation.
A robotic welding arms in operation.

UConn recently received $10.5 million from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) for research on high-temperature materials and manufacturing processes. The funding will allow a team of seven faculty members from Materials Science and Engineering (Professors Aindow, Alpay, Frame, and Hebert), Civil and Environmental Engineering (Professor Kim), Mechanical Engineering (Professor Bilal), and Chemistry (Professor Suib) along with post-doctoral associates and graduate assistants to address challenges in the manufacturing of aerial systems intended to fly at high speed. Much of the four-year research project will focus on welding-related challenges for high-temperature metallic materials that are used for structures exposed to high speeds. The UConn team will combine experimental and theoretical approaches to help their collaborator, RTX, advance their manufacturing solutions. Additional project tasks address the behavior of non-metallic high-temperature materials under different processing and service conditions, additive manufacturing of high-temperature refractory metals, and the design and processing of metamaterials. These metamaterials are designed to change heat- and electro-magnetic fields in and around structures and are considered to advance the thermal management of high-temperature structures.

The new AFRL project comes at the heels of previous and ongoing AFRL projects for UConn approaching $30 million that involve over 15 faculty members from the Colleges of Engineering and Liberal Arts and Sciences with dozens of graduate students and post-doctoral associates. Covering research from functional materials and photonics to casting, welding, and additive manufacturing, the UConn team has established itself as a valuable partner for the AFRL and key industry partners, for example, Pratt & Whitney and Collins Aerospace.

Professor Rainer Hebert says of the contract, “The AFRL funding enables the UConn team to pursue materials processing research with a strong focus on industry and government relevance. Students and post-doctoral associates working on the project see firsthand how their research translates to industry. This insight will help in preparing a workforce that can pursue research excellence with a keen sense of the needs and constraints of industrial applications.”

MSE Graduate Student’s Mission: Advance Latino Recruitment, Participation in STEM

Ph.D. Student Luis Ortiz
MSE Ph.D. student, Luis Ortiz

Ph.D. student Luis Ortiz’s passion for materials science was ignited during his undergraduate years at the Universidad de Puerto Rico – Humacao, where he was involved in research focused on physics applied to electronics. He revealed, “In my Applied Physics department in Puerto Rico, we have a program mainly focused on materials research. Based on my experience there, I fell in love with the material science field and decided to pursue my graduate studies in this area.”

Ortiz became exposed to the UConn MSE program through various fellowships he applied to throughout his undergraduate years. He revealed, “We didn’t have much information about UConn in Puerto Rico. As a minority student, I decided to apply for fellowship opportunities that could help me succeed in graduate school at universities in the USA. I also applied to this specific program called the Bridge to the Doctorate Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation while I was an undergraduate student. This is a two-year fellowship that helps you bridge between undergraduate and graduate school, and they supported me through the start of my Ph.D. They have a network of universities inside the program, and UConn was one of the listed colleges.”

During the two-year fellowship, Ortiz was introduced to Professor Bryan Huey, who currently heads the MSE department and serves as his advisor. Luis admits feeling supported by Professor Huey and the other department faculty members. He remarked, “Many people here are willing to mentor students and see us become better professionals. My advisor has been one of them.” Ortiz acknowledged the support he receives from MSE faculty members to pursue his dreams and their confidence in his ability to achieve them. “I feel supported and validated in terms of how we pursue our path and work to achieve our goals,” he said.

Read the full MSE story

12 UConn Faculty Elected to CASE

CASE 2024 new members from IMS
(l to r) Drs. Bodhisattwa Chaudhuri, Yupeng Chen, Avinash Dongare, Liisa T. Kuhn, and David Pierce are among the 12 UConn faculty selected as members of CASE for 2024.

The Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering (CASE), an organization of academic and industry professionals who advise the state government on matters of science and industry, announced the election of 35 new members in 2024. Twelve of these new members — over a third — are UConn faculty. Nearly half of those selected from UConn are members of the Institute of Materials Science (IMS).

  • Bodhisattwa Chaudhuri, Professor, UConn School of Pharmacy
  • Yupeng Chen, Associate Professor, Biomedical Engineering, UConn College of Engineering
  • Avinash Dongare, Professor, Materials Science and Engineering, UConn College of Engineering 
  • Liisa T. Kuhn, Professor and Associate Department Head, Biomedical Engineering, UConn Health 
  • David Pierce, Professor, Mechanical, Aerospace and Manufacturing Engineering, UConn College of Engineering

All new members will be introduced at the Academy’s 49th Annual Meeting and Dinner at the Woodwinds in Branford, CT on May 21, 2024. IMS congratulates all the new CASE members.

Read the full story at UConn Today

Jessica Rouge Empowers Underrepresented Women in Science

Jessica Rouge (far left) with the members of her lab (UConn Photo).

Before sunrise, Jessica Rouge used to leap out of bed in the glow of darkness and race to the Charles River with her teammates for crew practice.  

A few hours later, the future UConn associate chemistry professor would run back to Boston College for her morning science class: she was among a small group of female students pursuing a B.S. degree in biochemistry. 

Rouge still sprints, but in a different way: now, she doubles as teacher, mother to two toddlers, mentor to young scientists, hobby musician and soon she will potentially add another role to her repertoire: science entrepreneur. 

Rouge’s lab group, which is more than 50 percent female, “seeks to understand how enzymes and nucleic acids can be used in new ways to engineer highly specific and targeted responses in chemical and biological systems. Specifically, her team is interested in developing new chemical strategies for assembling catalytic RNA sequences at nanoparticle surfaces for sensing, diagnostic, and therapeutic applications.” 

Rouge was a 2022-2023 recipient of the SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund, a program that helps shepherd the process of translating invention to entrepreneurial success. 

With the preclinical data she was able to secure using the Spark Fund resources, Rouge is hopeful that she and her collaborators are close to licensing her technology. 

Read the full story at UConn Today

The World’s Smallest Basketball, from the Basketball Capital of the World

worlds tiniest basketball
Besides basketball and logos, the technology is used by Huey’s group for their pioneering Tomographic AFM work, studying future semiconductors, solar cells, metal alloys, and electromagnetic sensors—all with unprecedented nano-volumetric resolution.

While the UConn basketball team moves forward into March Madness, another team of Huskies is hard at work for the love of the game. 

One UConn College of Engineering department’s March Madness bracket includes creating the world’s smallest basketball. 

Researchers from the materials science and engineering department, housed in the new Science 1 building, has produced a basketball and Husky logo with the best-depth-resolution nanolithography in the world.  

“After we determined that our new technique worked, we wanted to do an eye-catching school spirit-related project,” says department head Bryan Huey. “A basketball and the Husky logo seemed to be a perfect way to celebrate UConn. It was fun watching our project gradually (and microscopically) take shape, and we couldn’t be more pleased with the results!”

The pictures were “carved” into a crystalline substrate. Laterally, the patterns are about 4-5 um. For comparison, a human hair is roughly 50 um. And the depth of the engraving is only 5 nm, which is another 1000x smaller than the width. Hence, the world’s smallest basketball was chiseled here in Storrs. 

Read the full story at UConn Today

Collaborative Research to Develop Filament-Based Hydrogels is Cover for JACS

Cover of JACS March 6, 2024 issue featuring Yao Lin etal. researchIn a collaborative effort, researchers from the University of Connecticut (led by Profs. Yao Lin, VJ Kumar and Xudong Yao) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (led by Prof. Jianjun Cheng) have made an advance in the rational design of synthetic polypeptides to develop filament-based hydrogels. The work, conceptualized and realized by the graduate students Tianjian Yang (UConn) and Tianrui Xue (UIUC), has been published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) and featured as the cover of the March 6 issue.

Building on the recent advancement of autoaccelerated ring-opening polymerization of amino acid N-carboxyanhydrides (NCAs), this study strategically explores a series of random copolymers comprising multiple amino acids, aiming to elucidate the core principles governing gelation pathways of these purpose-designed copolypeptides. The team found that the selection of amino acids steered both the morphology of fibril superstructures and their assembly kinetics, subsequently determining their potential to form sample-spanning networks. Importantly, the viscoelastic properties of the resulting supramolecular hydrogels can be tailored according to the specific copolypeptide composition through modulations in filament densities and lengths. The findings enhance our understanding of directed self-assembly in high molecular weight synthetic copolypeptides, offering valuable insights for the development of synthetic fibrous networks and biomimetic supramolecular materials with custom-designed properties.

The research was supported by NSF grants awarded to Yao Lin at UConn (DMR 1809497 and 2210590) and Jianjun Cheng at UIUC (CHE 1905097).

IMS Director Discusses Carbon Capture and Impact Mitigation

Dr. Steven L. Suib, Director of UConn’s Institute of Materials Science (IMS), is working to mitigate the effects of greenhouse gasses caused by carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions through carbon capture and conversion.  His work was recently highlighted in a UConn video.  IMS News reached out to Dr. Suib to discuss the impacts of the his research.

Carbon Capture - Gel
Dr. Suib’s research is highlighted in this video produced for UConn Today

How does carbon dioxide (CO2) negatively impact the environment and why is the research you are conducting critical to mitigating the impacts of CO2?

CO2 is a product of combustion from gas burning vehicles, industrial plants, and other sources. Enhanced levels of CO2 are believed to be responsible for global warming and the unusual patterns of weather throughout the world in recent years. We are trying to find ways to trap and gather carbon dioxide and also to transform this into materials that are less hazardous and with practical uses.

You state that CO2 must be trapped (or captured) in order to be converted.  What methodology or methodologies are used to capture CO2 emissions?

There have been many different methods suggested to capture CO2 including physical methods of trapping in porous materials as well as chemical reactions for storage.

Discovering methods of converting CO2 to harmless but useful products requires the introduction of a catalyst to convert the gas. You have conducted extensive and often-cited research in catalysis.  How does this expertise aid in your research? 

The bonds in CO2 are strong and this gas is quite stable. There are many different types of catalysts that we have made. Different reactions are often catalyzed by different catalysts. To find better catalysts they need to be synthesized. The heart of our research programs centers around synthesis of new materials. Unique new materials including catalysts may have different and beneficial properties that commercially available materials do not have.

When you use the term “harmless but useful” in describing products that can be derived from the conversion of CO2, what types of products are possible?

The objective of activating CO2 is to make products that are safe and that can be used in different applications such as new fuels, new chemical feedstocks, and others. These in turn can be used in applications involving sustainable energy, medicines and pharmaceuticals, and new conducting systems (semiconductors, superconductors, batteries, supercapacitors).

It seems we have reached a critical stage in the climate crisis with calls for more research and, above all, action to reduce greenhouse gases and their negative effects.  How urgent is the research you and your students and colleagues are conducting to the mitigation of the climate crisis?  How close is the research to producing measurable outcomes?

The field of capturing and activating CO2 is very active right now, with numerous groups around the world trying to solve problems that would allow CO2 to be eventually used in many different commercial processes. Our work involves a small set of potential materials for capture and activation of CO2. There are measurable improvements in capture and activation. The key will be to push this to the limit so practical processes can be used.